Reading with Book Clubs

I’ve been in a book club for years, as a reader. I’m obviously not unique in this membership, it seems most people are in a bookclub or would like to be.  (And yes, there are that bunch who definitely do not want to be in a bookclub for a myriad of reasons – time, they only want to read what they want to read; I get it.)  My bookclub meets loosely, about once per month, reading books by women of color, unless there’s a book that we all agree we will make the exception for, and we’ve been together about 10 years.  We’ve hosted authors in person and by phone (before there was Skype).  Now I’m on the other side, as an author.    Here’s a few tips, gleaned from my experience on both sides of the book for a successful and enjoyable book club.

Read the book.  I realize that expectation becomes a joke for some book clubs, but in truth, that really is the whole point. Of course, life happens and sometimes, even given a month, you don’t get around to reading the book, but do try. Perhaps, by page 25 you didn’t like the book and put it aside. That’s okay, at least you tried.

Discuss what you will read and how you will select a book.  Although people say, “oh, I read everything”, I don’t think that’s actually true.  We all have our preferences and dislikes. Me? I don’t read horror or anything particularly violent (yes, I’m a scaredy-cat).  Your group might settle on a theme of what you will read or what you won’t.  Then decide – will the group come to a consensus on the next selection, will you select several months/meetings head, will the host get to choose?

Set your rules. How often will you meet? Will there be refreshments? A meal or coffee and cake? Who will host or where will you meet? Is there an attendance requirement, do you have to RSVP?  How will you communicate in between meetings – FaceBook, evites, email, by phone?

Decide who can join and how. Somehow you selected your initial group; what about new members? Do you want to keep your group to a particular size? 6-10 seems like a good number; its small enough for a good discussion and large enough that if a few people can’t make it, you still have a decent number to meet.  Can members just invite a friend to come along or do prospective members have to be approved? One of my current bookclub members used to joke that she was working on her application and waiting for us to accept new members; we really aren’t that tough, but I have found some clubs that do have a formal process for accepting new members.

Discuss your book budget.  Do selected books have to be available in the library or are members willing to purchase every book?  If purchased, will you select them when they are new in hardback, or only when they are released in paperback? Check with your local library about getting bookclub holds on books or your bookstore about reserving a quantity for your members to ensure that they can get the selections.

Keep the book discussion related to the book. Probably the biggest joking comment about book clubs is that they are just excuses to get together and chit-chat about everything but the book.  But if you’ve read that book and really want to talk about it, it’s no fun when the discussion gets carried off to what happened on TV or what’s on sale at Target.  One way to accomplish this is to designate a person to manage the questions and discussions; it could be the host or another member.

Have fun.  That is the whole point, right?

What are some of the rules in your bookclub?

Start with One Word, Then Add Another 49,999

Back a few Novembers ago, I came across this crazy idea of writing 50,000 words in one month. Not just any 50,000 words – but in coherent (mostly), related (kinda) sentences that told a story.  With countless cups of coffee, endless bowls of M&Ms, and less sleep than is probably healthy, I managed to finish a skeleton of a 100 page idea.

How did I come up with that magic number of 50,000, other than it just sounds like a nice, round, impressive number?  And why in November, which is, for most people and especially a mother of 4, a crazy month of Thanksgiving planning, Christmas shopping, and lots and lots of baking? Because it’s NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month.  Started in 2009 and now run by the Office of Light and Letters, NaNoWriMo is an annual challenge to wanna-be-writers to get those characters and plots and scenes out of their brains and on to paper in a minimum of 50,000 words.  What you do after you hit that magic number or November 30, whichever comes first, is up to you. I chose to keep going. Another 250,000 words and I lost count after about 15 rounds of edits, and it all became my debut novel, Life in Spades.

Now, there’s Camp NaNoWriMo in July for those who don’t want to wait until November to begin your literary challenge. And of course, if you’ve missed Camp, too, you can always go it alone.  Either way, it’s going to take a little preparation to write 50,000 words.  Here’s a few things I learned along the way to get your started.

Set up Camp. Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have a writing desk or office, or maybe you are taking up part-time residence on the kitchen table in between meals. Find a comfortable space and at least for that writing time, make it yours.  Set up our laptop, get your favorite coffee cup, put up a picture of you on your last vacation.

Figure out your Camp schedule.   How long is writing camp and when will you be there?  A month, a week?  Will you get up early and write before your normal day gets started? Stay up late? Write during your lunch break? Or perhaps you can you take 30 days off and disappear from your regular life.  Plan to write during that time every day. That’s not my idea – Steven King, Walter Mosley – I imagine most successful writers – would tell you you’ve got to write everyday. But those two, I know do say that for sure, both in their books on writing.

Plan your Camp agenda.  How many words are you going to write in your novel, how many years will you cover in a memoir, how many poems will you compose?  Break that goal down into manageable, not overwhelming chunks.  50,000 words in a month? 1667 words/day in November or 1613 words/day in July.   Do the math, make a sign, post it on your wall.

Tell your family, or room-mates, or whoever else lives with you. They need to understand why all of the sudden you cannot hang out watching reality TV and playing Wii Dance Revolution and why you are muttering about some group of imaginary people. You don’t have to tell anyone else if you don’t want to. It depends on how many people you want asking you, “are you done yet?”  Send them a text every now and then to let them know how you’re doing.

Pack provisions.  Snacks, your favorite beverage to keep you well-fed.  Bring a creative diversion for when you can’t think. I keep a ball winder (for yarn) and a crochet project handy for when I need to let my mind wander.

Carry a notepad and pen, or smartphone or iPad. Somewhere to write down ideas. Once you start writing on a consistent basis, you will start making connections to your story while going about your normal life. You will see a dress that one of your characters would look great in. You will realize that the street you want your character to speed down has been closed off and turned into a market square. A plot turn will become suddenly evident to you. You’ll want to write all this down, ready for when you get back to your writing desk.

Write, don’t edit. Just write. You will cut drastically into your time and word count by going back and editing – because the editing will never end.  If you have a compulsion to go back and re-read, then just edit the big stuff – the character was short not tall, Black not White, it was a rainy day, not a sunny day. Edit the stuff that really matters, then get back to the story. Leave the fine tuning until after you’ve hit our goal.

Take notes – briefly. I didn’t come upon this until several full revisions into my novel, when I finally couldn’t keep track of every little detail in my head. Use notecards and write the main point of each chapter and any important details.  Your character breaks a leg or loses her voice, it’s summer time or Tuesday. Refer to those cards as you go forward.  If you are not going back to make edits, make notes on those cards for when you are ready to go back.

Get started. And let me know how it’s going.  I’ll be writing right along with you.